5 things degree holders need to do to survive in Singapore's job economy

By Ryan Ong

Congratulations on graduating! You’re now one of a few hundred thousand graduates in the job market, many of whom will shortly realise their University-stamped document is more useful as a beer coaster. As education becomes more accessible (and hence common), you’ll need ways to differentiate yourself from your peers. Here’s how:

1. Start Working As Soon as Possible, Even if you Won’t be Paid like a Graduate Yet

Some graduates do have job offers. They just turn down offers because the job doesn’t pay what they think it should (a favourite, and entirely arbitrary number, is $3,500 a month for a degree holder).

If you’re one of these people, I hate to break it to you but you bought into a lie.

All that talk about how a finance degree will turn you into an investment banker making six digits right out the door? Or how your law degree will “guarantee” a starting pay of over $5,000 a month?

It doesn’t really work that way.

It’s occasionally true that, at a given point in time, a particular degree might earn you enough to buy a small country right after you graduate.

But the key phrase there is “at a given point in time”. Pretty soon it won’ be true anymore – for the simple reason that a massive number of people will rush to do it, which results in a glut in the market. Demand in the job market fluctuates more than you imagine.

Also, when it comes to certain jobs (e.g. the legal profession, or fund management), a small percentage of successful professionals tend to take up most of the wealth. As a newbie, you are not in that small percentage.

Don’t panic: this doesn’t mean your essays and late night cramming were for nothing. It just means they aren’t going to pay off as soon as you’d hoped.

What would really make it for nothing is if you stay on your ass, waiting to “one day” be offered a job that pays what you imagine you’re worth. That’s like trying to win a marathon by standing at the start line until someone decides to give you first prize.

Oh, and if you wait long enough, good luck explaining to an interviewer why you’ve done diddly-squat for two or three years after school.

2. Keep Doing Things Related to Your Degree, even if You Can’t Find a Matching Job Right Now

So you got an engineering degree, but ended up supervising a McDonald’s outlet. Or you have a degree in theatre, but now work the front desk of a shipping firm. That sucks, but the trick is to make sure you don’t stay there.

In the above example, said engineer should be working on side-projects related to her qualifications. She can blog about common design problems, modify furniture, maybe even design a child-proof medicine bottle that can be opened without a table clamp and a small crane.

Said theatre graduate should be writing plays, trying to get funding to stage small productions, or teaching kids speech and drama on the side.

The key is not to quit doing what you studied to do. Even as you take on whatever job you can get for now. Stay industry-relevant. Keeping getting the experience and contacts needed to move to your desired career, and always have a sense of the demand.

3. In Interviews, Emphasise your Solutions, not Your Grades / Extracurricular Activities

It’s great that you helped plant trees and run charity bake sales or whatever, and I’m sure you have impressive grades (just like a few thousand other people). But that isn’t your best selling point in an interview.

You’re no longer in school, and the person you’re trying to impress won’t even pat you on the back for your A’s. All he wants to know is, if he gives you money, will you fix the problem he’s facing?

Put yourself in the hirer’s shoes for a moment. When you’re hiring someone to, say, cater for your family reunion, which of the two is more convincing?

(1) A caterer who has a clear plan on what he’ll do, how he’ll do it, and samples of the food he’ll prepare, or

(2) A caterer who shows you his test scores from culinary school?

It seems like common sense when you put it that way, but a lot of graduates walk into an interview with nothing but a degree and school accomplishments. Don’t be one of them. Research the company beforehand – draw up a list of things you will do for your employer, explain the benefits, and how you’ll go about it doing them.

4. Show Off What You’ve Learned

Are you a marketing student? Then turn your resume into an advertising brochure. An IT student? Put up a message that you’re looking to get hired, in your free app. In short, do everything possible to show off what you’ve learned.

This is related to #2, but I’m talking about something more immediate than being industry relevant. I’m saying that even during the interview process, you should try to show what you’re capable of.

This isn’t possible in every field (its a bit harder to flaunt your skills this way if you’re a management student, or an accountant). But it’s an especially good idea if you’re in a creative field,where you’re expected to produce work that’s not the norm.

5. Widen Your Skill Sets Beyond Your Core Competencies

Most companies no longer have rigid top-down structures (e.g. sales answers to marketing, marketing answers to management, management lies to senior management).

Instead, most companies now have departments that work side-by-side. When products or services are launched, marketing, engineering, sales, etc. all pitch in at the same time. And what companies need, more than ever, are the people who aren’t just competent at their job – they also need people who can provide a “link” between departments.

An engineer who can also do sales is a treasured rarity. And in some industries, such as insurance or asset management, a good marketer who also understands finance will have a three second wait between job interviews.

This doesn’t mean you need two degrees. It means you should develop tangential skills, in the industry you want to work in. The more of these you have, the bigger your edge over other candidates in the waiting room

This article was first published over at MoneySmart blog on 9 June 2014. It is reproduced with permission.

About The Author (Ryan Ong)

I'm the editor for MoneySmart.sg. I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.


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